Tag Archives: Lost Tribes of Israel

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

As we continue to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah this week, it is important to remember that not all of the Greeks were wicked and immoral. We have already written in the past about the influence of Greek philosophy and language on traditional Judaism, and that the enemies of the Chanukah narrative were the Seleucids, or Syrian-Greeks, not the mainland Greeks of Europe. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:6-18) records an alliance between Jonathan Maccabee—the kohen gadol and righteous leader of Israel after the deaths of Matityahu and Judah Maccabee—and the famous Spartans of Greece:

Jonathan, the high priest, and the council of the nation and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers, the Spartans. In former times, a letter was sent to the high priest Onias, from Areus who was then king among you, to say that you are our kinsman… And Onias showed honour to the man who was sent to him, and accepted the letter, which contained a declaration of alliance and friendliness.

So, although we are in no need of these, since we find our encouragement in the sacred books that are in our keeping, we have undertaken to send to renew relations of brotherhood and friendliness with you, so that we may not become entirely estranged from you…

Coin depicting King Areus I of Sparta (309-265 BCE)

Jonathan points out that Israel does not need the help of the Spartans to defeat the Seleucids, as God’s help is all they need. Nonetheless, Israel and Sparta were always good friends, and Israel wants to keep it that way. In his letter, Jonathan mentions an earlier letter sent by King Areus of Sparta to Onias the kohen gadol (Onias is the Hellenized name for Choniyahu or Chonio, the son of Yadua the high priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, and discussed last week). This letter is recorded in the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:20-23) as well, and also in the writings of Josephus:

Areus, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. It is found in writing that the Spartans and Jews are kinsman, and that they are both of the stock of Abraham…

Incredibly, the Spartan king suggests that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham, too! Where does this bizarre belief come from?

Greek Sons of Abraham

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE lived a Greek historian and sage named Cleodemus, sometimes referred to as Cleodemus the Prophet. He also went by the name Malchus which, because of its Semitic origins, makes some scholars believe he could have been Jewish. Cleodemus wrote an entire history of the Jewish people in Greek. While this text appears to have been lost, it is cited by others, including Josephus (Antiquities, i. 15).

Cleodemus commented on Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (typically identified with Hagar), and their children. This is recorded in Genesis 25, which begins:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuach. And Yokshan begot Sheva and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Ashurim, and Letushim, and Leumim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah, and Epher, and Chanokh, and Avidah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Keturah. And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, while to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, to the east country.

Abraham had six children with Keturah, from which came at least seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren which the Torah names explicitly. The Torah then makes it clear that Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac—including the Covenant with God and the land of Israel—while the others received gifts and were sent away from the Holy Land.

Cleodemus suggests that Epher (or another child named Yaphran), the great-grandson of Abraham, migrated to Africa—which is where the term “Africa” comes from! (This is particularly interesting because Epher was the son of Midian, and Tziporah the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and is described as a Cushite, or African/Ethiopian.) Cleodemus states that Epher, Yaphran, and Ashurim assisted the Greek hero Hercules in one of his battles. Following this, Hercules married one of their daughters—a great granddaughter of Abraham—and had a son with her. This son was Diodorus, one of the legendary founders of Sparta!

It appears that the Spartan king Areus was aware of this possible historical connection, and accepted it as fact. This connection may explain why the Spartans were so similar to ancient Israelites. (Others have suggested that because the Israelite tribe of Shimon—known for being fierce warriors—did not receive a set portion in the Holy Land, many of them moved elsewhere and ended up in Sparta, or ended up in Sparta after being expelled from Israel by the Assyrians alongside the other lost tribes.) In his book Sparta, renowned historian Hugo Jones writes that the Spartans held in the highest regard a certain ancient law-giver, much like Moses the law-giver of Israel. The Spartans celebrated new moons (Rosh Chodesh), and unlike their Greek counterparts, even a seventh day of rest! Of course, the Spartans themselves were very different from other Greeks, particularly those in Athens, whom Sparta often battled. The Spartan form of government was different, too, not an Athenian-style democracy but a monarchy that governed alongside a “council of elders”, much like Israel’s king and Sanhedrin.

Perhaps most similarly, the Spartans were known for their “stoic” way of life. The later Greek school of stoicism was modeled on the ancient way of the Spartans. This meant living simply and modestly, being happy with what one has, and most importantly, putting mind above body, and logic above emotion. This almost sounds like something out of Pirkei Avot, and is a teaching echoed across Jewish texts both ancient and modern. In fact, when Josephus tried to explain who the rabbis were to his Roman audience, he said that they were Jewish stoic philosophers!

Bust of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Athenian school of Stoicism. Zeno taught that God permeates the whole universe, and knowledge of God requires goodness, fortitude, logic, and living a life of Virtue.

Gideon and Leonidas

Undoubtedly, the most famous story of the Spartans is the Battle of Thermopylae. Around 480 BCE, the Persian emperor Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive force. Xerxes first sent messengers to the Greek city-states to offer peaceful surrender. According to the historian Herodotus, Sparta’s king Leonidas told the messenger: “A slave’s life is all you understand, you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spear, but with everything we have.” Spoken like a true Maccabee.

The messenger then told Leonidas and his men to bow down, to which Leonidas, like his historical contemporary Mordechai, said: “We bow down before no man.” Later, when the Persian boasted that his empire was the wealthiest in the world, with gold reserves the likes of which Leonidas could only dream of, Leonidas replied: “Ares is lord. Greece has no fear of gold.”

This statement almost makes Leonidas seem like a monotheist. Indeed, the Spartans worshiped Ares—the god of war—above all others. Interestingly, the Torah commonly describes Hashem in similar military terms, like a great warrior riding a merkavah or chariot, as a “God of Legions” (Hashem Tzva’ot), and even as a “Man of War” (Ish Milchamah, see Exodus 15:3). Of course, the Spartans had their abominable statues and idols, which is perhaps the greatest distinction (and a critical one) between them and ancient Israel.

‘Gideon choosing his men’ by Gustav Doré. God told Gideon to choose worthy soldiers based on the way they drank from a spring. Those that went on their knees and bent over to drink were disqualified. Those three hundred who modestly took cupfuls to their mouth were selected. (Judges 7:5-7)

King Leonidas went on to assemble just three hundred brave men to face off against the massive Persian invasion. Although they ultimately lost, the Spartans fought valiantly, inspired their fellow Greeks, and did enough damage to hamper Persian victory. This story of three hundred, too, has a Biblical parallel. The Book of Judges records a nearly-identical narrative, with the judge Gideon assembling three hundred brave men and miraculously defeating a massive foreign invasion.

Which came first? The earliest complete Greek mythological texts date back only to the 3rd century BCE. By then, the Tanakh had long been completed, and in that same century was first translated into the Greek Septuagint. It isn’t hard to imagine Greek scholars and historians of the 3rd century getting their hands on the first Greek copies of Tanakh and incorporating those narratives into their own. In fact, the Greek-Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Alexandria (181-124 BCE) admitted that all of Greek wisdom comes from earlier Jewish sources. The later Greek philosopher Numenius of Apamea said it best: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”

Yafet and Iapetus

The similarities between Greek myth and more ancient Jewish texts are uncanny. Hercules was a mighty warrior whose first task (of twelve) was to slay a lion, like the mighty Shimshon who first slays a lion in Judges. Deucalion survives a great flood that engulfs the whole world as punishment from an angry Zeus. Like Noah before him, Deucalion has a wife and three sons, and like Noah, Deucalion is associated with wine-making (the root of his name, deukos). Pandora’s curiosity brings about evil just like Eve’s, while Asclepius carries a healing serpent-staff like Moses. Aristophanes even taught that Zeus first made man as male and female in one body, and later split them in half, just as the Torah and Talmud do.

Roman mosaic of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and a Roman fresco of Samson and the lion, from the same time period.

In Jewish tradition, the Greeks come from the Biblical Yavan, son of Yafet (or Yefet or Japheth), son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). Yavan is the same as the Greek Ion (or Iawones), one of the Greek gods, and Ionia, referring to one of its most important regions, and the dialect of the great Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as the scholars Herodotus and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, the Greeks worshipped Iapetus (same as Yafet) as a major god. Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, the god who supposedly fashioned man from the mud of the earth. So, not surprisingly, the Biblical Yavan and Yafet are firmly in the Greek tradition as well.

In the past, we wrote how Greece had a huge influence on Judaism. Now, we see how tremendous an influence Judaism had on Greece. The two civilizations go hand-in-hand, and between them gave rise to the world we live in. Indeed, this was prophesied by Noah, who blessed his sons: “May God make Yefet great, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Shem is the earliest forefather of Israel, and Yefet of Greece. The two dwell in one tent. Winston Churchill said it best:

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Jewish victory over the Seleucids. Not of the Greeks as a whole, but of a relatively small faction of Syrian Greeks, far from the Greek heartland which always enjoyed a good relationship with Israel, starting with Alexander the Great and through to the Spartans and Maccabees.

Chag sameach!


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